Brooke Harrington (@EBHarrington): THREAD: As news stories drop about COVID+ pandemic deniers & anti-vaxxers ranting defiantly from ICU beds, let's review what fraud research suggests abt the responsibility we should attribute to them for their condition & the ms they send.

Are they victims we should pity? 1/x

One of the recurrent problems in US popular discourse on the proper response to crises is that it's often assumed there are only two options:

  1. crack down hard, damn the consequences (usually assoc w/RW)
  2. "just be kind; kindness is everything:blush::rainbow::heart:" (usually assoc w/LW) 2/x

Both approaches have become almost completely divorced from the American pragmatic tradition (ex:Pierce, Dewey & Wm James) which would lead us to ask: what do we want to accomplish & what will actually work? Those are pretty impt questions when millions of lives are at stake. 3/x

Clearly, Americans can be rational problem-solvers when it comes to some situations that require weighing the claims of personal liberty vs collective survival. No one (that I know of) argues that we should address the problem of drunk driving w/kindness...or executions. 4/x

But now, w/COVID having claimed at least 610,000 US lives, with more deaths coming from the Delta variant & no end in sight, there have been increasing calls to "empathize" w/pandemic deniers & anti-vaxxers (from LW), coupled with calls to "respect their liberty" (from RW). 5/x

One might ask of the National Review why they don't publish articles suggesting that drunk drivers, or people who knowingly transmit HIV to sexual partners w/out disclosing their status, need to be "persuaded" not to harm others? Why doesn't NR demand respect for them? 6/x

Both the RW & LW absolve pandemic deniers & anti-vaxxers of responsibility for harming others (& themselves) on the premise that they are "victims"--either of "disrespect" or of a "con" perpetrated by RW media, Trump, etc. Both approaches treat these individuals as helpless. 7/x

It's fairly easy to dispatch the "disrespect" claim: it implodes on contact w/the RW's long-standing insistence on personal responsibility. They deny that any individual's choices can be blamed on another's actions...hence, no amount of "disrespect" should matter here. 8/x

But how to argue against "be kind?" Many people may have misgivings about that approach, but are afraid to voice them bc the implicit alternative is "be UNkind;" as social psych research has shown for decades, we all want to believe we're "good people." Even bad guys do. 9/x

Here's where social scientific research on fraud becomes very useful. Among other things, it allows us to detail the experience of the "marks" (people who get conned) in such a way that we don't flatten them into helpless paper dolls, robbing them of agency & motive. 10/x

In 2022, those of us who do research on fraud & con artists will celebrate the 70th birthday of the seminal article in our field: "On Cooling the Mark Out," by Erving Goffman, a giant in 20th century sociology. This text explains where we are now. 11/x

Goffman's key observation, kind of obvious when you see it in B&W on the page, is that eventually all marks come to understand they've been conned. Then what? As Goffman explains, they almost never complain or report the fraud to the authorities. Why? Bc it's humiliating. 12/x

So humiliating, in fact, that Goffman describes it as a form of social death: the body survives, but the person-in-society is destroyed by the admission of having been conned. It's a condition Goffman likens to being laid off, deported or dumped. Very relatable, & pitiable. 13/x

But there's a crucial difference between a mark & most others condemned to social-death-by-humiliation: the mark can simply deny the con, claiming they were "in on it" the whole time. This saves their pride & cheats social death, but allows the con to continue unchecked. 14/x

The "moral failure" of the COVID+ pandemic deniers & anti-vaxxers ranting from ICU beds is to prioritize saving face over saving other peoples' lives. They could do the latter by telling the truth & exposing the con, saying "COVID is real, get vaccinated." But they don't. 15/x

Goffman's work, along w/100s of articles that have built on it, suggests that many victims of con artists make a conscious choice to protect themselves socially & emotionally at the expense of others. "Be kind" does not require that we accept this unkind, even deadly choice. 16/x

Have you ever made a mistake that nearly did irreparable damage to your life, or risked killing you outright? Most adults have & they try to help others avoid those mistakes. That's caring & responsible. Yet the peculiar social psychology of the con militates against this. 17/x

People who fail to warn others of life-threatening dangers ("don't swim out to that reef--I nearly drowned in the undertow!") ARE responsible for that choice. They SHOULD be condemned, just like people who drive drunk & knowingly infect unaware partners w/HIV. 18/x

Marks ARE victims at one point; but eventually they're all confronted w/evidence that they were conned--evidence like being in the ICU after contracting a virus they believed didn't exist. They are just as responsible as anyone else for what they do with that information. 19/x

Since they've chosen moral failure, & now endanger us all with their face-saving maneuvers, the pragmatic question is: How do we keep them from killing the rest of us?

Goffman's work implies 2 parallel strategies:

  1. Let them experience social death.
  2. Employ coolers. 20/x

1st strategy=deliver appropriate social consequences for dangerous anti-social behavior. Stay away from these folks & explain why you're doing it. Don't argue abt whether they're "victims." Refocus on pragmatics: what are they or others doing to prevent needless death? 21/x

2nd strategy=identify figures that the marks trust & enlist them as "coolers." High-status members of the marks' own communities are the only ones who can help reconcile themselves to their humiliation & enable them to rejoin society w/out putting the rest of us in danger. 22/x

Like the rest of us, COVID deniers & antivaxxers don't much care abt validation from randos. Humans care about status & "face" in communities that matter to them, which define their place in the world. Sociologist Robert Merton called them "reference groups." 23/x

This is why the claim "yOu MusT reSPekT vAccInE dEnieRs" is BS: vaccine deniers don't crave respect from everyone. Randos offering respect won't change a thing. The only people who can sway these folks are members of their chosen reference groups: maybe family, church, &. 24/x

The pragmatic survival task we face now is identifying the relevant reference groups for pandemic deniers & antivaxxers, along w/influential members of those groups who can model how to tell the truth about COVID-19 w/out "losing face." Those people must act as "coolers." 25/x

Coolers help the mark "to see himself and judge himself." They help with "redefining the self along defensible lines." Note the "judge" part: coolers don't absolve marks or encourage them to see themselves as victims. No: they help marks reconcile themselves to reality. 26/x

We see this now in the halting efforts of Hannity on Fox News or Ron DeSantis of FL, encouraging supporters to take COVID precautions. Their motives may be selfish--fear of lawsuits or losing voters to death--but their approval matters to the deniers who could kill us. 26/x

The 1st people who try to act as coolers are usually treated w/suspicion--even if all available evidence is on their side. Look what has happened to hi-status GOP ref gp members like @RepKinzinger & @RepLizCheney when they dared to try cooling out the marks conned by Trump. 27/x

But w/increasing numbers, it becomes more difficult to marginalize the efforts of coolers. They represent the weight of reality crushing fantasy. We need to identify & support more of these insiders w/in the reference groups that matter to COVID deniers & antivaxxers. 28/x

An unintended benefit of otherwise destructive social media: Facebook, Twitter & other platforms make it fairly straightforward to identify & sometimes join the reference groups that COVID deniers & antivaxxers have created. Within the groups, leaders can be IDed & observed. 29/X

Applying the insights of Goffman & social psych suggests a kind of grassroots strategy: DM reference gp members who have ventured doubts about the con, esp if they have lots of followers or their posts get lots of likes. Offer to back them up when they tell the truth. 30/x

The call has to come from inside the house. Alt strategy: identify people who are inside these folks' reference groups & ALSO part of your ref gp.If they know they've been conned, use your approval as an incentive. Explain how much you'd admire them for telling the truth. 31/x

I have to cook dinner now, but if you found this thread helpful in understanding a social problem, GOOD! That's what Sociology is for, as I tell students. The US would be better off if we had Chief Sociologists, not just Chief Economists. With @alondra, we're getting there. 32/32

P.S.: I've just been reminded that my editor @IanMalcolm10 might be disappointed an extremely polite Canadian way if I don't mention my books. They do the kind of breaking-down-problems-with-sociological theory you've seen in this thread, but 4 finance.

Also, belated and sincere thanks to @Neil_Irwin for penning that article in the Times. I had been nattering at my students for YEARS about what would happen if the US had a Chief Sociologist & was pleasantly astonished to find that someone actually published an article about it.

Pages that link to this page